One Year Later: Rhode Island’s Local Movements for Climate Action Fill the Federal Void



I stood within a sea of black umbrellas outside the Louvre. We held them at arm’s length toward the cameras – black circles emblazoned with white letters spelling the words “Fossil Free Culture” as the French police watched closely. We called for the Louvre to divest, for society to divest, for the international representatives gathered in Paris to pass an aggressive plan to address dangerous climate change. There, on December 11, 2015, negotiators passed the Paris Climate Agreement. It wasn’t enough, but it was something. We tore through the streets, chanting, wanting more, hoping.


That vision changed dramatically on November 8, 2016.

It is disorienting to walk through life as an individual carrying the heaviness of a global problem, a problem that the minutest of actions, like throwing a bottle in a bin or turning a car key, can contribute to. A problem the federal government refuses to acknowledge. It causes a familiar feeling of sickened vertigo, of fun house floors sliding beneath our feet, the feeling I had on November 9 last year, waking up to the news that our president-elect was now someone who’d called climate change “a concept…created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.”

We’d done it. We’d elected a government of officials with a preference for denying undesirable facts, re-purposing any data that could upset their desired order of things. More dangerous than too-small crowds, the facts of climate change are conveniently blurred by this administration. For they fear, as Heartland President Joseph Bast candidly admitted to Naomi Klein in a 2011 interview for her book This Changes Everything, “Climate change is the perfect thing … It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.” The federal picture has been disturbing and dystopian since Trump took office.

Donald Trump’s White House denies that climate change is happening (something that fossil fuel companies and interests have been doing for decades), wiping mentions of the words from federal websites as easily as editing a Wikipedia page. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now led by the climate change-denying former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt and our secretary of state is Rex Tillerson, former CEO of oil giant Exxon Mobil. A sweeping rollback and reconsideration of the environmental protections enacted by the Obama administration has begun, including pulling the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as it can legally do so in 2020, making us only one of two countries that refuse to sign (the other is Syria); repealing the Clean Power Plan (the federal plan to cut global warming pollution from the energy sector); and green-lighting the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline projects blocked by the Obama Administration. The list goes on.

These reversals are particularly egregious given the enormous contribution to global warming that the United States has historically made (and continues to make). The United States is number one – the number one historical contributor to dangerous planetary warming. On October 23, 2017, when the Environmental Protection Agency pulled their staff scientists from speaking at a report release in Providence concerning the impacts of climate change on Narragansett Bay, it was only the latest example of the federal government’s new policy of silencing and undermining the movement to combat climate change.

Rhode Island Says “We Are Still In”

The headlines appear daily on my computer screen. Ice sheet calving, an entire colony of penguins dying, the sea is rising faster than we thought, a storm hits Puerto Rico, and hits it again. Unprecedented. In so many places, these are not headlines, but experiences, punishing and painful. With the safety cord of federal environmental oversight cut here in our home communities, we have been left panting, reeling, determined, often angry and in full awareness of the responsibilities left on our shoulders. I’d say in Rhode Island it has spurred us to action.

To list a few policy successes:

  • Rhode Island joined 13 other states and Puerto Rico in the US Climate Alliance, a pledge to affirm the goals of the Paris Agreement and reduce the state’s global warming-fueling emissions. This alliance is related to campaigns like “We Are Still In” and the Michael Bloomberg-founded “America’s Pledge” initiative, an effort of US state and local representatives and private sector leaders to present a positive agenda of US climate change action to the world. (Bloomberg is expected to help fund the presence of US state representatives at the next international climate negotiations, so Scott Pruitt’s contingent doesn’t do all the talking for us.)
  • Rhode Island has a newly appointed Chief Resiliency Officer to create a plan to address the vulnerabilities of Rhode Island communities to the threats of climate change.
  • Governor Raimondo set a goal in May 2017 to increase 10-fold the amount of renewable energy installed within Rhode Island and double the number of clean energy jobs between 2016 and 2020.
  • In 2017, the RI state legislature passed measures to extend renewable energy incentives, incorporate sea level rise into municipal planning procedures and strengthen green building standards.[17]

Even more locally, grassroots environmental movements are vehemently contesting new fossil fuel infrastructure. A fight against the construction of a natural gas plant in Burrillville (a plant that Governor Raimondo once supported despite her clean energy goals, and now remains neutral on) has garnered support from cities, towns and community leaders across the state. A divestment campaign targeted Citizens Bank in February over its investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline. A grassroots group Climate Action RI formed in 2017 to drive state and local action to fight climate change.

No One Will Do It For Us

In May 2017, as I stood in front of the state house at the RI People’s Climate Mobilization Rally, I heard some of the loudest cheers when local labor organizer Mike Araujo from RI Jobs with Justice called on environmentalists to “reset the ecology of our hearts” and make the connection between the “green movement” and local fights for safe neighborhoods, affordable housing and fair wages. “When we say the environmentalist movement and when we say the green movement, we have to say black lives matter,” Araujo stated.

When I heard that more than half of white women in the United States voted for Trump (compared to less than 10% of black women), I knew there was something more broken, more unsustainable about our environmental movement than the lack of a carbon tax or a polluted river.

Some are working to fix this problem, and the leadership from those most impacted by climate instability is gaining attention. As part of the city’s Equity in Sustainability Initiative, Providence’s Office of Sustainability has established a stipend-supported Racial and Environmental Justice Committee to make recommendations that can improve the office’s lines of communication with communities of color. Committee members include leaders from the group No LNG in PVD, a grassroots group speaking out against a liquefied natural gas facility in South Providence. Providence’s Office of Sustainability also hosted two “Undoing Racism” trainings led by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. As with all things climate change, there are solutions – if we look the inconvenient facts in the eye and begin to take action.

Federal disengagement with environmental policy makes all of this work harder – federal grant money is threatened, data collection is interrupted and real people will die because of the dangerous global warming that we have locked in for the decades to come. But the work does not stop. In the end, US climate action is about more than a president. Perhaps our vision of what needs to be done is becoming clearer now – now that we know no one will do it for us.